The rush to reopen schools is being framed as an act of social responsibility, but if we don’t vaccinate public school teachers first, it is yet another act of white supremacy, the cultural norms and structures that encourage and maintain the status quo of white privilege and racism.
At home, my four kids are trying their best: waking up early, pushing through long days in front of the computer, making do with virtual play time, and submitting assignments—some excellent, some mediocre, some on time and some late. Even with our parental support, and with their teachers’ encouragement and dedication, they are not faring as well as they did before schools closed due to COVID-19. Families all over the county are reporting similar outcomes. And that is why we want—no, we long—for schools to reopen. While the prospect of a slowdown in our kids’ academic growth is scary, long term chronic health issues and death are truly tragic.
The CDC now estimates that Black Americans have lost almost three years of life expectancy, Latinx almost two years, and whites one year, due to COVID-19. Just like with all other negative health outcomes from COVID, minoritized communities fare worse.
Some children who get COVID-19 develop MIS-C, a syndrome that damages their heart, lungs, kidneys, brain, skin, eyes, and other organs. While it’s too early to know much about this condition, we do know that it can lead to lingering coronary problems and that 69 percent of cases have occurred in Black and Latinx children.
This is frightening.
We need to learn more about MIS-C before putting our children at risk. It is easy to imagine that children with MIS-C will have health complications throughout their life, that they will require long-term and costly care, that they and their families will have to foot the bill for those expenses (God forbid they ever have to find and pay for health insurance privately with that pre-existing condition), that they will experience lower quality of life as a result, and that they might even live shorter lives than their peers.
In Los Angeles County in particular, Blacks and Latinx are overrepresented in COVID-19 cases, deaths, and MIS-C. USC’s No Going Back report identified structural racism and white supremacy as the root cause of these health disparities.
Furthermore, these disparities existed before COVID-19. In 2014, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation reported that Blacks and Latinx consistently receive worse healthcare than whites, and carry an additional economic burden of $60 billion in 2009 as a result.
If we truly meant it when we said we were antiracist last year, we would prioritize the health of Latinx and Black students and teachers, who make up the majority of people in the public school systems in Los Angeles County. Meanwhile, teachers at an expensive private school skipped the line to vaccinate last week.
My oldest sons are two of the over 650,000 students in the Los Angeles Unified School District, 74% of whom are Latinx, 10% Black. Of 23,000 teachers, 45% are Latinx and 9% are Black.
My two youngest attend nearby Glendale Unified School District (GUSD), where 20% of students are Latinx, and 2% are Black, while many educators are Latinx (55% of teachers at my kids’ school).
GUSD has piloted on-campus learning pods for about 1,000 students out of 26,000 whose parents need childcare during the day. That model seems to be working well, thanks to safety protocols and very limited capacity.
So when we hear that mass reopening of schools before mass vaccination is worth the risk, we must ask ourselves: worth it for who? Certainly not for the Latinx and Black teachers and students risking their lives and their long-term health without the vaccine.
If whites were getting COVID-19 and dying from it at a higher rate than Latinx and Blacks, and if white students and teachers were the majority in public schools, would we reopen schools without vaccinating teachers first? I think not.
It’s time we go back to the drawing board on school reopenings and make sure the process protects teachers and students’ health above all else.